My thoughts on Avatar boil down to this: A story well told isn’t necessarily a good story.
James Cameron is a good storyteller, I’ll give you that, and I would cite either of the first two Terminator movies or Titanic as proof. But the story that is supposed to ground the lights and awe of Avatar just doesn’t hold up.
First, it’s just such a well-worn tale: The evil invaders versus the quintessential ‘natives,’ and the converted explorer who falls in love with the New World (and a very pretty native who embodies its values). (See: Pocahontas.)
It’s not that it isn’t a relevant tale with a strong moral lesson – it’s just so painfully obvious. What happens to a story when every characters fits an archetype? And because it’s such an obvious political analogy, we know who the bad guys are, and we know what road the main character is going to take because the good vs. bad lines have been so plainly drawn.
Second, the characters are not so much properly developed characters as they are players whose depth are sacrificed for the larger moral tale. I feel as though I should have been hissing at the screen every time the Bad Guy appeared, and there isn’t even an attempt to make the Na’vi anything more than an idealized society that makes human civilization look like total dicks.
The result of this black-and-white characterization is that I didn’t feel any emotions toward the characters. So-and-so died? Oh… I guess that’s sad?
Plus, I just didn’t buy the last-minute redemption of some of the secondary characters. It was only when they were physically destroying the Na’vi’s homes that some of these supposedly regretful characters shed a tear, or refused to cooperate. What am I supposed to believe? That before, when the humans were only going to coerce these ‘savages’ off their land to mine for Unobtainium (stupidest name ever, by the way), they were willing accomplices and then, when it’s time to actually force them out, they suddenly feel bad and they’re supposed to have what? Depth? Evoke sympathy? Fuck you. And it’s not like Cameron tries to expose this sham; I honestly think we’re supposed to hate the Muscley Guy in the Machine and everyone else was just following orders.
And I don’t care much for Sigourney Weaver’s character either. Is she supposed to be the beacon of rationality and morality in this tale? She’s a pawn on a corporate payroll with bloody hands. Fuck your good intentions or love for the Na’vi. She was smart enough to know what she was getting into.
So, scratch that. I guess I did feel emotions for these characters: Anger.
The only time I felt any sadness was towards the injustice of the whole affair – the heartless colonial mission that destroys societies for the Almighty Dollar. But that’s just not enough.
Besides, Cameron is offering up some really big ideas: colonialism, genocide (?), even mixing human DNA with Na’vi DNA, and there isn’t enough movie to show the complexity that necessarily goes along with these concepts – even in almost 3 hours.
I also felt like the ‘he-gets-a-second-chance-to-walk’ storyline was almost too much, like trying to squeeze one more element into already stuffed movie, although I think the idea itself was a good one.
All that being said, I’ll return to my assertion that it’s a story well told. You can’t argue that it wasn’t visually fantastic. Even the little things – the way the sun glinted off surfaces, or the way water fell – were awesome to see. It didn’t look nearly as cheesy as it did when he showed clips at Comic-Con in July. And in terms of pacing, editing, and even dialogue, it had its strong points. All of which made me want to like it more than I did. It’s just sad that for all its 3D wonder, Avatar is just a 2D story painted in fluorescent blue.